Marío ‘Che’ Salas
Claudio Borghi’s departure not only affected the national team, but also the Under-20 side as previous incumbent Fernando Carvallo left to show his support for Borghi and the way he was dismissed. With less than 40 days until the Sudamericano kicked off former Barnechea manager Mario Salas was appointed.
Pre-tournament friendlies did not go to plan as La Rojita struggled to find their way through defences, despite the presence of an allure of attacking talents. Salas switched from the 3-4-1-2 preferred by Carvallo to an attacking 4-2-3-1 which focused on moving the ball quickly through Rabello or Cuevas and keeping the opposition in their own half.
In the group stage of the tournament it seemed to click, Salas asking his players to summon the spirit of Che Guevara. A firm supporter Guevara’s ideology, Salas would often incorporate the slogans of the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader such as ¡Hasta la victoria siempre! into his team talks.
Rugby also played a significant part in Salas’s development as a teenager, starring for Old Macks in Chile, before he chose football as his number one sport.
La Rojita seemed to feed off and respond to his energy, hard work and determination. Although, at times it did get out of hand – Salas received a two-match ban for insulting a Venezuelan official. But he led Chile to the World Cup in Turkey later this year, meaning his contract his extended as a consequence.
Before the tournament there was uncertainty surrounding Rabello and whether Sevilla would let him travel to the tournament. When he did there was always the worry that los rojiblancos would recall him.
However, he stayed and starred earning a host of plaudits, admirers and superlatives.
His defining moment came when Chile were trailing 1-0 to Peru in the final match of the Sudamericana – Peru were heading through at the expense of Chile. La Rojita were awarded a free-kick mid-way through the first half. From near-on 40 yards Rabello – an expert deliverer of set-pieces – opted to thump the ball towards goal. It was an ideal height for Ángelo Campos as it travelled towards him in the middle of the goal before swerving and swerving and swerving some more to fly into the corner of the goal leaving Campos helpless.
Yet, throughout the tournament Rabello thrilled viewers with his dazzling close control, rapid dribbling and his ability to raise even the laziest of armchair watchers from their hind. Without trying to overdo the superlatives Rabello’s dribbling is almost Messi-like as he dashes, dips and darts past challenges, albeit preferring his right foot. A quality no doubt picked up when playing wide for Colo Colo. At such a young age he still has the tendency to try and do too much; trying to beat an extra man rather than look for that decisive pass.
His future certainly lies as an enganche/numero diez. This where he supported the excellent Nicolás Castillo, but also adept at drifting left or right to open space in the middle for one of the defensive two to dash into and to combine with Cristián Cuevas and Diego Rubio.
As highlighted in this article, he is one of the next kings of Chilean football.
Darío Franco will have been working around the clock settling in to his new role as manager of Universidad de Chile. But he surely rewarded himself with a satisfactory smile if he was able to fit watching La Rojita’s games into his hectic schedule, because in Igor Lichnovsky and Valber Huerta Chile had one of the best centre-back partnerships at the tournament.
Lichnovsky is the better known of the two having received a sizeable amount of game time under Sampaoli for a centre back still only 18, plus the expectations bestowed on him by IBWM.
The tournament did not get off to the best start for Lichnovsky despite keeping a clean sheet against Argentina with nine men. He appeared down on confidence, especially in possession. He was clearly recovering from having been dropped by Sampaoli towards the end of 2012 for similarly shaky performances. However, instead of wilting he, with the captain’s armband wrapped around his lengthy arms, grew in stature and highlighted the promise that drew admiring glances from Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Internazionale. For someone so young he is mature and intelligent with and without the ball, while his leggy frame able to frustrate opposition attackers just when they think they are getting away from him. Despite a red card, he is strong but fair with an aerial presence to match.
Not known quite as well Huerta was the one the impressed that little more. He seemed more reassured, making few errors and proving more than adept at taking the ball from defence into midfield. A real modern day centre-back; physical yet technical. He was most impressive choosing when to move into the full-back position to cover or to stand his ground and keep close to his captain.
José Rojas and Osvaldo González have long-term successors who we will be hearing a lot more of in the short-term.
One player overlooked in the above ‘Future Kings of Chile’ article was Castillo. And it is with that article that this writer takes credit for his development since then. Not long after being published Castillo would become the focal point of Universidad Católica’s attack in their run to the Copa Sudamericana semi-finals. He carried that form into the Sudamericana, leading the line with strength, pace, awareness, decision making, aerial ability and most of all a ruthlessness that awarded him with five goals. He had quite clearly noticed his omission and went on his way to prove me wrong.
In the opening months of 2012 Castillo was in and out the UC team impressing and frustrating in equal measure – deviating between looking like the next Didier Drogba and the next Ishmael Miller.
The confidence instilled by Martín Lasarte has seen him grow as a player, and with Ángelo Henríquez denied the chance to travel to Argentina Castillo has reached the next level. His rapid rise has prompted offers from Anderlecht and Hertha Berlin. But UC are willing to wait until after the World Cup in Turkey with the hope of attracting even more tantalising offers – for example Napoli.
Whoever wins the battle will be getting a player who at only 19 is able to lead the line as a lone striker, mixing selfless running with a selfish instinct. Just as comfortable with his back to goal as running at it, plus an excellent capability in playing in others for their own chance of glory.
A die hard UC fan he will hope to lead them to glory in the league before leaving for Europe.
Who says football players are not role models? The Chilean national team have been notorious for their indiscipline off the field and card count on it.
Off the field La Rojita were a shining example – take note Jorge Valdidiva – with only a minor blemish coming when Lawrence Vigouroux took to Twitter to express his disappointment at missing out on replacing Darío Melo when he was suspended. He quickly apologised and that was the end of it.
On the field it was a different matter as seven red cards – eight if you count Salas’s removal from the technical area – were racked up.
However, there is a caveat. The refereeing at the tournament was bordering on shambolic. In fact in the most part it was shambolic. Anything that remotely looked like a foul was treated with zero tolerance by referees whose reflex was to reach for a card – be it a yellow or red.
None could have been more bizarre than Rabello’s sending off in the 4-1 over Ecuador. Challenging for a header, Rabello was adjudged to have elbowed Junior Sornoza. The referee claimed that he had seen blood. Rabello won the ball and of course there was contact. As there always is when two players compete to win the ball. Not enough, however, to prompt the reaction from the player and referee.
CONMEBOL need to improve the standard of referee for future tournaments or players will soon realise contact is frowned upon.
One of the team’s biggest assets was their threat from set-pieces – five goals were scored were procured in the nine games (excluding penalties).
In Rabello, Chile possessed the most dangerous taker, especially from wide right or deep positions, swinging the ball away from the goalkeeper. A combination of fierce pace and the perfect trajectory that any Chile player connecting would have little else to do other than make contact, while the goalkeeper simply had no choice but to stay on his line.
It has to be said that he was helped by the fact that he usually had three giant targets in Castillo, Huerta and Lichnovsky.
There were also three fantastic direct free-kicks netted. By three different players. We’ve mentioned Rabello’s, but Castillo and Baeza also found the back of the net.
Salas’s appointment saw the fortunes of Palestino goalkeeper Darío Melo take a turn for the better. Frozen out under the previous management team due to an alleged shoplifting incident during La Rojita’s European tour last year, he was reinstated as the number one.
And it turned out to be an inspired choice as inspired performances were exactly what he turned in. Starting with the fantastic nine-man defeat of Argentina, Melo was outstanding as he thwarted the host nation time and time again.
Throughout the tournament we were witness to his array of goalkeeping qualities; getting down sharply pushing shots round the post, springing to his left or right highlighting his acrobatics, sweeping up with clearances or smart blocks and the confidence in possession.
Melo is clearly a confident person with his Mohawk type hair cut and gregarious tattoos on his back. That confidence is conveyed on the pitch, although at times it borders on over confidence – taking his time attempting to beat a couple of Ecuadorian forwards before deciding to hit it long, only for it the ball to be blocked. Thankfully for Melo nothing came of it.
He did receive a red card against Colombia – a game Chile went on to win – but it was smart play by the forward who bamboozled Melo with a crafty body swerve.
Competition is rife behind Claudio Bravo for places in the national team, but Melo is the future.
Moving away from the action on the pitch one of the most striking aspects of the squad, albeit from afar, was the bond that they had clearly built. Courtesy of Lawrence Vigouroux and his prolific tweeting he shared a number of images of the squad bonding away from the field, whether it was posing for pictures, playing video games or trying to give the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper a heart attack.
That bond did transfer itself to the pitch with countless pile-up involving the substitutes or daft poses to the camera. While they players seemed to enjoy it when Franco Ragusa – an attacking midfielder – deputised for Darío Melo between the posts when the goalkeeper was sent off. After keeping a clean sheet the players and coaching celebrated the player’s zaniness.
It was refreshing to see young players showing humour and humility.